20 May 2022


The Indian caste system

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Societies around the globe were formed through different platforms, which were particular to a community's culture and traditions. Through these platforms, individuals were divided among different categories or classes. The Indian caste system is a good example of such a system, which is descriptive of social stratification whereby categories are used to rank individuals depending on hierarchy. It is regarded as the oldest form of social stratification, which is still recognized. The system divides Hindus into hierarchical groups depending on their work (karma) and duty (dharma, which also means religion). Roughly, the caste system is about 3,000 years old ("What is India's caste system?", 2016).

The caste system entails four key categories, which are Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (farmers, traders, and merchants) and Shudras (labourers). It is believed that the said groups originated from the Hindu God of creation, Brahma ("What is India's caste system?", 2016). Apart from the four categories, there exists one referred to as Dalits, which mainly comprises of outcastes such as latrine cleaners and street sweepers. This group of individuals was also referred to as the untouchables. These individuals carried out the dirty tasks associated with pollution and disease as mentioned. For this reason, contact between the Brahmins and the untouchables was highly prohibited, as the former represented purity, while the latter represented filth and dirt ("What is India's caste system?", 2016). The Brahmins are said to have come from the Brahma's head, while the Kshatriyas were from his arms. The traders came from thighs and the Shudras came from the Brahma's feed.

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Theoretical frameworks

Structural functionalism

Structural functionalism posits that a society exists in the form of a complex system whereby all parts work together to promote stability and solidarity. Thus far, it is evident that the Indian caste encompasses four categories as mentioned. Structurally, one could perceive it as a system composed of interrelated statuses, whereby there is patterned interaction between and among castes (Coser & Rosenberg, 1989). However, it is important to note that these interactions are based on differing restrictions as well as a stable set of social relations. This means that the way in which the Brahmins would related to the Kshatriyas is not the same way they would relate to the other remaining castes, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The reason behind this is that the castes do not share the same ranking, which would then eradicate the element of complexity in the society as structural functionalists posited (Coser & Rosenberg, 1989).

Assertively, although there are differences between and among the castes, they need each other. In essence, each caste plays a role that benefits every other caste whether above or below it. As an example, the activities of the Vaishyas are of major importance to even the Dalits, who are not formally recognized in the Indian caste system. However, from a structural functionalist approach, one could understand the important role that each caste plays in the overall wellbeing of the case system.

Social conflict theory

This particular framework addresses the existence of conflict in the society whereby social groups interact based on conflict as opposed to coming to a consensus about certain matters or issues. In reference to the Indian caste system, Coser (1956) mentioned that for Indians, there is no social mobility meaning that individuals belonging to a certain caste do not have the desire to move out of their lower caste. The rationale for this is because the caste itself is founded on religious beliefs and hence no group of individuals wants to violate them (Coser, 1956).

However, the Dalits (untouchables) have expressed the concerns over the diminished treatment they are subjected to. Individuals who belong to this group do not own any lands; they are mainly agricultural or menial laborers and for this reason, they demand greater political presence and voice. Their aim is to break free from the bondage and segregation imposed on them by their socio-cultural foundation (Coser & Rosenberg, 1989). Thus, from a social conflict perspective, the Indian caste system comes out as a channel through a particular group of individuals experience harsh and indifferent treatment compared to others from a higher-ranking caste. This explains why the Dalits are moving towards establishing themselves as a group worthy of recognition and respect. However, it is unfortunate that the foundation on which the caste system is based limits emancipation of the Dalits, hence promoting increased conflict with other castes.

Symbolic interactionism

Descriptively, symbolic interactionism demonstrates that individuals act towards things, which have meaning for them. Another explanation is that individuals are inclined towards certain symbols, and their behavior is reflective of their understanding of those symbols. This means that in a particular society, whatever individuals ascribe value to is what governs their actions (Coser & Rosenberg, 1989). In India's caste system, the four categories mentioned have different roles, which are attributed to them. For instance, the Brahmins are perceived as intellectuals and they occupy the highest rank in the caste system.

Therefore, the Brahmins behave in a manner that demonstrates their rank in the caste system. It is the social class they are born to and this explains the importance they place on it. As an example, the Brahmins are prohibited from coming to contact with the Dalits based on the caste differences between the two groups. It is expected that the actions of Brahmins are symbolic of their rank, and the same case applies for all other castes. Thus, symbolic interactionism helps explain, in depth, why different groups are particular about the caste they belong to; it is what gives their existence meaning.


Coser, L. (1956). Functions of Social Conflict . Simon and Schuster

Coser, L., & Rosenberg, B. (1989).   Sociological theory : a book of readings.   Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

What is India's caste system? (2016). BBC . Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616

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